Testing Assumptions

Assumptions May Be Your Product Line’s Enemy

A curious thing is happening as we learn ways to work through and deal with the COVID disruption.

It seems everyone is questioning and testing assumptions. And by that, I don’t mean only about how we work online from anywhere. I mean people are questioning foundational assumptions about product lines, innovations, and business models. And this is a big deal. Let me explain.

Questioning Assumptions

Most managers know it’s important to question assumptions. Eventually, assumptions die. And if a company holds onto an assumption for too long, they won’t grow and their performance will slip. You’ll even see failure knock on their door.

Look at the big companies that went bankrupt. You’ll see they held onto certain assumptions for too long. I offer up Kodak, Blockbuster, and Compaq as well-known examples. And there’s an astonishingly long list of others I could add.

Every company must examine their assumptions if they wish to survive. But getting people to do it has been a struggle. So why the problem and how are things different now?

Outside the Box

You’ll find assumptions woven into every company’s culture. And its common to find managers not realize how assumptions guide them in their thoughts and actions.

Everyone’s heard encouragement to “think outside the box.” The response is typically to say, “OK, I’ll try to think differently.” Yet people never think about the box. What is the box? Dive into the topic and you’ll see the box is a set of assumptions. It’s an invisible chamber that guides your thinking.  And in meetings, without even realizing it, you’re sitting in that box alongside many of your colleagues.

There’s little doubt that assumptions are powerful shortcuts. They speed up decisions. They allow people to work without having to analyze and reanalyze everything. And reasonable assumptions mean you don’t need new insights to justify each judgment you make and action you take.

Raising questions about assumptions and trying to break out of the box can be awkward when you’re sitting with other managers. And challenging an assumption, even its existence, can seem unproductive when markets are growing and things are great. Why would you question assumptions when there’s no expected pain? Most likely, you wouldn’t.

But when business isn’t rosy, as it isn’t for many companies during our COVID experience, a sense of pain looms over every meeting. And in a search to drive better performance, people feel a need to spot and question assumptions.

It’s Different

The economic disruption makes people see the assumptions in a different light. In my experience, questioning an assumption starts with a polite disagreement that pops up in a meeting. The conflict may seem irrelevant or not. What matters is what’s behind the disagreement.

If you believe everyone in the meeting wishes to help the business, then there’s only one reason for the conflict. People hold different assumptions. An assumption held by one person doesn’t match the assumption held by the other. One or both assumptions aren’t true.  And you won’t know until you peel back the arguments to examine the assumptions.

In good times we avoid questioning assumptions, and in bad times we embrace it.

Moving Past the Old Normal

But let me be clear. Questioning assumptions for the sake of discussion isn’t helpful.  If you question one assumption, you and your colleagues will question many more. You do this when there’s pain and uncertainty. You want to figure out what’s true and what’s not. But the most important reason you do this is to squash the pain and improve the situation. The end-goal is the change your organization must make to improve performance and results. And that’s work that goes beyond mere discussions.

See the thought progression. Pain and uncertainty leads to questioning assumptions.  This leads to forming new assumptions that reflect new truths in doing business. And that then leads to changes toward getting better results.

Our new economy has fostered an upheaval of assumptions, leading to much change. And when your competitors and customers change, you’ll feel more pain and mounting pressure that will dislodge you from your “old normal.”

This surreal state has taken every company for a ride in a spiraling economic vessel. But for many product lines and businesses, the ride will be life-altering.

Ready, Set, Change

Pull up your work boots. It’s important to see how our new economy is causing us to question assumptions. This is a powerful driver. And It suggests there will be much change in your future.

Is your management team holding onto dead or dying assumptions? Do you think your company should revamp its product lines and business model?

My bet is that everything is fair game in this environment. Your job is to think long and hard to figure out what’s best for your family and your company. Just don’t let old assumptions pull you down.

Please let me know your thoughts. Do you agree, or do you have a different view?

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